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Red Sox Free Agent Target: Michael Brantley

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The Red Sox need an outfielder. Why not target the steadiest option out there?

League Championship - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

If Rob Manfred were to declare the season was starting tomorrow, outside of the logistical issues that would exist from getting the players to the field to being able to play in bad weather and the myriad of labor issues that would be presented, the Red Sox would also be looking at a subpar outfield, to say the least. They would have Andrew Benintendi and Alex Verdugo for two-thirds of the unit, and then probably either Yairo Muñoz or Michael Chavis, which is less than ideal on its own never mind with the ripple effects felt on the bench. The point being: They need an outfielder. With Jackie Bradley Jr. now a free agent, Boston needs to find a way to replace him.

This is something we talked about earlier this month, laying out the different options they can pursue. As we discuss, it would be ideal to just plug and play a center fielder, but that could be easier said than done. And with an Benintendi trade seeming unlikely at this point, that starts to leave cross out some of those options. All of this is to say: There seems to be a real chance the Red Sox go with Benintendi in center field. I know a lot of people here are not wild about that idea, and for whatever it’s worth I’m there too. Statistically, Benintendi simply is not a positive in center field at this point.

But it seems that the team is less down on this idea, whether that’s due to the realization that there are a lack of other options or them simply being higher on his defense than myself or some combination of the two. So for the sake of the discussion today, let’s move off of the reasons why it wouldn’t be great and go in with the assumption that is the plan. If that is indeed the plan, then what is the best way to make the most of the hole now in left field? Marcell Ozuna is the biggest name, but given the budget constraints rightly or wrongly being put on the team this winter, I would argue the better move would be to go after Michael Brantley.

American League Championship Series Game 5: Tampa Bay Rays v. Houston Astros Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

If it seems like Brantley has been around forever, it’s because he kind of has been. The veteran is only 33 (he’ll be 34 next May) so it’s not as if he’s ancient by baseball terms, but he did make his debut back in 2009. He was with Cleveland at the time after they selected him in the Rule 5 Draft. He is one of the best Rule 5 draftees in recent memory. Brantley played in Cleveland for a full ten years before leaving in free agency following the 2018 season, heading to Houston to play for the Astros starting in 2019.

And whether we look at his time in Cleveland or more recently in Houston, one thing is abundantly clear: Brantley brings consistency. Although the lefty certainly doesn’t bring the upside someone like Ozuna or some other options may, for the most part you know what you’re getting when he is healthy. And he has been healthy in each of the last three seasons, finishing those years with wRC+’s of 124, 133, and 134, respectively.

It’s not just consistency with the final numbers, either. Brantley is also consistent in the way he brings that production. It’s not as if his power is nonexistent, but it’s more average than anything that stands out. That may not appear ideal for a corner bat, particularly in a Red Sox lineup where the other outfielders lack that kind of power as well, but Brantley makes up for the lack of excess power with incredible bat-to-ball skills. Year after year, he is one of the hardest batters in all of baseball to strikeout. This past season, he struck out just 15 percent of the time and that was actually his highest rate since 2011. For context, the league-average hitter struck out over 23 percent of the time, and no Red Sox player had a better rate than Brantley’s.

And it’s not just that Brantley makes a lot of contact, because that’s only half the battle. The one player tied with him on Boston’s roster was José Peraza, and we know that didn’t really do him very well. However, Brantley regularly pairs the low strikeout rate with a high batting average on balls in play, and when you toss in his typically-average walk rate, Brantley gets on base at a nice clip, settling in between .364 and .372 in each of the last three years.

So, we’re looking at a consistent veteran who has been at least 24 percent better than league-average (and usually better than that) for the last three years. At his age the defense is limited to the point where you’re likely only looking at him to play left field, and as discussed above the move to Benintendi certainly hurts the defense. But if we just look at the lineup, the addition of Brantley would make the lineup look something like this:

  1. Alex Verdugo, RF
  2. Xander Bogaerts, SS
  3. Rafael Devers, 3B
  4. J.D. Martinez, DH
  5. Michael Brantley, LF
  6. Christian Vázquez, C
  7. Andrew Benintendi, CF
  8. Bobby Dalbec, 1B
  9. Christian Arroyo/New 2B, 2B

Obviously the pitching would have a lot to say about this, but it’s not hard to see that lineup in a vacuum as one worthy of a postseason berth. So then that just leaves us with the cost. And as we’ve pointed out plenty this winter we don’t have a good grasp on what spending will look like given the pandemic, but we’ve been using MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs as baseline predictions. To that end, the former predicts a two-year deal worth $28 while the latter pegs Brantley for a three-year deal worth $45 million.

At the end of the day, my hesitation with this type of move has more to do with Benintendi than Brantley. In a vacuum, I think Brantley is a great player and the kind of steady presence that would benefit any lineup in baseball. With the Red Sox, though, I think they should be doing anything in their power to find a new center fielder and keep Benintendi in left. That said, if they do end up in a position where they are searching for a left fielder — whether that be because they intend to shift Benintendi over or they find a trade partner for him — then Brantley would quickly move to the top of my wishlist in that group.